Paul Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry is an invitation to pastors to examine their hearts, and it is excellent. It is what Richard Baxter wished he could he done, had he not been such a self-righteous bore. Tripp has a counseling ministry and travels regularly, seeing churches and leadership teams up close and personal nearly 40 weeks per year. Before he wrote this book, Tripp often taught these same themes at pre-conference events for pastors. He explains the genesis of this book:
When I finished and came off the platform, a long line of concerned and broken pastors formed in front of me. About five pastors down the line stood a man who wept his way toward me. I think I could have set up a counseling office for two weeks, full-time, and still not have ministered to all the needs that stood before me. It was at this conference that I determined that I would speak to these issues and do all that I could to minister to my fellow pastors. This book is the result of that clear moment of calling.
Tripp’s book falls neatly into three sections; (1) pastoral culture generally, (2) forgetting who God is, and (3) forgetting who you are. He explains what he wants the book to achieve:
This is a diagnostic book. It is written to help you take an honest look at yourself in the heart- and life-exposing mirror of the Word of God—to see things that are wrong and need correcting and to help you place yourself once again under the healing and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Throughout, Tripp offers personal anecdotes of failure and doubt to emphasize that he is not standing above the fray, sniping at busy pastors. He has been there. He has seen it. He has experienced it. He has failed. This is why his message is effective. Tripp empathizes and encourages you to be better.
This book is written to confront the issue of the often unhealthy shape of pastoral culture and to put on the table the temptations that are either unique to or intensified by pastoral ministry. This is a book of warning that calls you to humble self-reflection and change. It is written to make you uncomfortable, to motivate you toward change.
Indeed, Tripp’s work is essentially a modern-day The Reformed Pastor, only his work is actually helpful. Baxter, on the other hand, sneers at you, grinds your face into the mud with a polished jackboot, then screams at you about Christ (see my review of Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor here).
This review will focus on two particularly great chapters from Tripp, and one problem that is perhaps not his fault, but still a bit jarring.
His third chapter, titled “Big Theological Brains and Heart Disease,” is outstanding. Tripp discusses people he calls “theologeeks.” These are academic pastors who have little patience to deal with real people, and prefer to revel in scholasticism. “They love the academy and would unwittingly drag the academy into the local church and preach sermons that are more theological lectures than gospel meditations.”
Tripp recounts what happened during one of his practical theology courses at Westminster Theological Seminary:
I was recounting my own heart struggle, when I had been asked yet again to visit a man who had already eaten up much of my pastoral time and energy, when one of my students raised his hand and blurted out, “All right, Professor Tripp, we know that we will have these projects in our churches. Tell us what to do with them so we can get back to the work of the ministry!”
There are many things to pay attention to in his statement, but notice this: he didn’t even call the struggling people, to whom we are all called to bring the gospel, “people.” To him they were projects, that is, obstructions in the way of his definition of ministry. Now, if these people are not the focus and object of ministry, then what is ministry? There was no love for people in this student’s statement, and if there was no love for people in his vision of ministry, then it is safe to conclude that there was little operational love for Christ either. He was like many other idea, technology-of-theology guys who populated so many of my classes.
This is astonishing behavior. One wonders how a young man could ever ask such a question. One immediately wonders if this man is connected to local church ministry in any meaningful way. No person who is “in the trenches” could ever dismiss real people so flippantly as “projects” who detract from “real ministry.”
Tripp goes on to lament the “systemic” problem he sees in seminary training, which is an icy intellectualism. “Have we accomplished our training task if we produce generations of graduates who have big theological brains but tragically diseased hearts? Must we not hold together theological training and personal transformation?”
Seminary professors used to be experienced churchmen, Tripp writes, but increasingly they are now academic specialists who beget more people just like them. “So the energy in the classroom was not cloning a new generation of pastors but cloning experts in apologetics, ethics, systematics, church history, and biblical languages. It has been a subtle but seismic change in the culture of the seminary and the kind of results it produces.”
I have seen this in myself. This is actually the thing I fear most about myself; an icy intellectualism that freezes out joy. I am naturally a nerdy person, and am currently reading Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics at bedtime for fun. I think of sermons I preached years ago, and shudder. I look at sermon notes from those days, and recoil in horror. They are running commentaries, not sermons.
I also fear I compensate too much by going in the opposite direction, by not going deep enough in my preaching. I had a recent conversation with another pastor. The man spoke with joy about the chiastic structure in a psalm he would preach for an upcoming mid-week service and how Hebrew wordplay reminded him of something from Exodus. I thought of the people in the congregation where I serve and thought, “People are in debt. People have bad marriages. People are tired. On Wednesday evenings, they don’t need to care about chiastic structure. They just need God’s word to help them get through the week.” Am I wrong? Have I become subtly anti-intellectual?
In his 12th chapter, “Self-Glory,” Tripp asks us to think about whether we are subtly worshipping ourselves. He presents a hypothetical pastor and writes:
He was convinced that most of the strategic things that needed to be done would be best done by him. Fewer and fewer people were commissioned to do ministry tasks. No, fellow leaders were more and more tasked with support duties because the larger ministry duties were all done by him.
This was particularly hard hitting, because I tend to be a perfectionist. Am I this way because I think I am better than anyone else? Tripp asks, “Where do you attempt to control things that you don’t need to control? Where do you find it hard to delegate ministry to others?” This introspection of mine demonstrates just how well Tripp succeeded in penning a diagnostic book for pastors.
The one grouse I have with Tripp is that he ministers in larger and wealthier context than most pastors will ever see. He exists in the realm of the megachurch, or at least the very large church. This makes his attempts to “relate” strained and artificial at times. For example, Tripp rightly criticizes pastors for phoning in mediocre sermons, then writes:
… I can’t have a fresh encounter with the truths I am to communicate from a particular portion of Scripture on the week that they are to be preached. A week does not give me enough content and communication time. I work ahead to prepare to preach wherever I am called. This means that when I prepare the content of a message, it is the message that I’ll be preaching in three or four weeks. This gives time for truths to marinate in my own heart and become more deeply and practically understood. On the week that the sermon is to be preached, I preach it aloud to myself some fifteen or twenty times. As I do this, both my understanding of the passage and the creative ways it can be communicated deepen and develop.
This is a world the ordinary pastor will never experience. Tripp has apparently never had to preach or teach several times per week, help troubleshoot problems in the soundbooth, field questions about Zoom issues and work a day job … all at the same time. Tripp clearly has time on his hands, so his anecdote here is not helpful.
In another section, he introduces a hypothetical burned out pastor. Solemnly, Tripp writes “[t]he door to his office was shut more now than it had been, and he delegated more of his duties to his executive pastor.”
An executive pastor? Any shepherd of a smaller, ordinary church will surely laugh out loud. Where can I find one of these “executive pastors” to whom I can delegate work!?
These quibbles aside, Tripp’s book is excellent. It fulfills its quest to be a diagnostic tool for busy pastors. It makes you think. It makes you examine your heart. It encourages. It is refreshing. Sadly, perhaps the best recommendation for this book is that James MacDonald, Joshua Harris, and Tullian Tchividjian are among the seven pastors who penned jacket endorsements. Each crashed, burned, and left his ministry since Tripp’s work was published.
 Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 32.
 Ibid, p. 11.
 Ibid, pp. 11-12.
 Ibid, p. 44.
 Ibid, p. 46.
 Ibid, p. 52.
 Ibid, p. 53.
 Ibid, p. 169.
 Ibid, p. 170.
 Ibid, p. 149. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid, p. 125.